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Mary Magdalene (Carlo Crivelli, ca. 1487, tempera on panel)

Here is another painting by the underappreciated 15th century master Carlo Crivelli (whose enigmatic biography is sketched in this post concerning a beautiful Madonna and Child which he painted around 1480).  Crivelli’s paintings have been called grotesque—and there is no denying that there is something alien, and disturbing—and thrilling–about his works.  Maybe that is why he is so often out of favor in the art world compared to his more admired Quattrocento contemporaries (although his paintings have lingered on for more than half a millenium in our greatest museums and collections).

In this extremely vertical composition, a richly attired Mary Magdalene proffers a golden jar of ointment to the viewer with haughty languor.  With her right hand she lifts the jeweled vessel of salve while her left hand lifts up the pink folds of her exquisite gown. As always in Crivelli’s work, the rich details and dazzling colors pull our eyes around the composition to the weird details.  At the bottom is a garland of dull faced putti with insect wings who rest their heads on elephant-headed vine creatures. Sumptuous flowers with beguiling petals (but grasping roots and piercing thorns) frame Mary’s gilded head.  The overly ornate golden filigree of her chemise resembles fungi and lichen.  Her jewel crusted hair is so perfectly coiffed, it resembles the work of a Etruscan jeweler rather than actual human hair.

The weird details continuously distract us from the crowning achievement of the painting: Mary’s beautiful Byzantine face with sloe eyes, arch brows, and tiny chiseled mouth.  Here at last there is humanity and true beauty, but distorted through the alien  mannerism of the painters of Constantinople (which finally fell to the Turks in Crivelli’s lifetime).  The whole composition reeks with the perfume of unknown realms.  The prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair is entirely subsumed by the riches of a fabled past.  Renaissance art turned toward the human, but Crivelli’s heart was always with the Byzantines, looking toward impossible otherworldly splendor.

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